Peter Kuruvita: Food is a universal pacifier

Peter Kuruvita: Food is a universal pacifier

The award-winning chef who dropped into Dubai recently explains why what we eat is more than just sustenance, amidst regaling City Times with tales of traditional Sri Lankan kitchens, tea-infused dishes and happy Australian chickens

By Enid Parker

Published: Sat 24 Feb 2018, 7:49 AM

Last updated: Thu 1 Mar 2018, 2:58 PM

Storytelling is an inborn talent. And if you happen to possess the gift of the gab and ready wit along with a flair for creating culinary masterpieces, well, that, to us, is a rather irresistible (and enviable) combination, one we personally experienced recently upon having a delightful chat with award-winning chef, restaurateur and media personality Peter Kuruvita, who dropped into Dilmah t-Lounge at Ibn Battuta Mall to whip up a special tea-inspired menu.
Heading to the mall after a particularly tiring day, we perked up not only at the aromas of various teas brewing but also the affable manner with which Peter was greeting guests and posing for photos. It was easy to see why this host of culturally inspired and visually arresting shows like My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita, Island Feast with Peter Kuruvita and Peter Kuruvita's Coastal Kitchen, is so popular with fans.
Peter, who's a brand ambassador for Dilmah tea, kicked off our conversation by extolling the virtues of the centuries-old aromatic beverage, and gave us a few tips in the process.
"I think people from the Middle East have been drinking tea for centuries, and everybody is looking for pure tea. And Ceylon tea is regarded as the best in the world."

'It's a lifestyle, it's a luxury'
Are you the kind of person who dunks a teabag in hot water, pops some milk in and gives it a quick stir (we have to admit to being guilty of this)? While this process of 'tea making' would be sacrilege to Peter, he makes allowances for it too.  "It's a beverage and a lot of people have that beverage with sugar and milk, which is the first no-no! But having said that, in poor countries where people can't afford maybe a middle meal, a hot cup of chai with lots of sugar will give them the energy to go back into the fields and work. Green tea in the morning perks you up or a good strong black tea in the morning gives you a boost! Green tea is nice and light and refreshing.
"Average brewing time for a cup of tea in England is 34 seconds. And in 34 seconds you get nothing except dirty water! You need to brew your tea well. You know, you go to a coffee shop and they put a teabag in and hit it with hot water and that damages the tea, it's a delicate herb that needs to be treated well. And if you brew green tea for two minutes, all the antioxidants, all the good things will come out in 90 degree water. When you brew tea you need to stir it twice, at least. If you do an experiment and take a glass of hot water and then drop a teabag into it, it'll form a plume over the top and basically the tea and the water won't combine. And therefore it's not going to taste good! But the bottomline is it's a beautiful herb, it's proven to have health benefits, and it's nice to drink! Tea is part of cuisine. It's a lifestyle, it's a luxury, it's something that we shouldn't just take for granted. That was the short answer, by the way!" (laughs)
'Put tea on your spice shelf'
Peter also explained the concept of tea gastronomy, which is essentially the art of combining tea in food, and we were inspired to give it a try! "The journey started in 2004 when we really started to concentrate on tea gastronomy. Me - I make chocolates with  blueberry and pomegranate tea! It's amazing! Earl Grey and chocolate is a match made in heaven! They go so well together. Green tea and sea food! The green tea is cleansing, the sea food goes well. The best way to explain tea gastronomy is, put some tea into your spice shelf, and start experimenting and you'll start to see."
Where food isn't just food
Watching Peter's shows and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to recreate some of the lip-smacking recipes featured, it's obvious that his ancestral home in Sri Lanka is a huge inspiration for his culinary journey. "Three days ago I was back in that house with my auntie cooking in that kitchen. So in those days the kitchen was called a 'black kitchen' because everything was firewood. The whole kitchen was covered in soot. My grandmother and her two daughters cooked and they went to the market in the morning. And when you went to the market with your auntie you pulled on her sari and asked her 'auntie, what's that' and when you pointed to something and asked her what it was, first they tell you the Ayurvedic health benefits.
"Curry leaf, that's good for your digestion. Ginger - it's cooling, and for when you've got a cold or a stomach ache. The king coconut, the red coconut - that's natural electrolytes. You can ask any Sri Lankan about any fruit or vegetable and they will innately know the health benefits. We've known that turmeric is an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory, forever. Now they're selling in every supermarket and every corridor of every large mall there's someone flogging tablets of turmeric! Gotu Kola (pennywort) - it's proven that it helps with Type 2 Diabetes. It's great for arthritis. Now they're selling tablets of it!"

Culinary career Down Under
Peter moved with his family to Australia in 1974 and admits to initially having a tough time surviving in his new country. "It was very hard for me. All I had was a distant memory of the amazing times in Sri Lanka and then the time that we battled for survival. But I love the place, I think now I'm so glad we moved there. I'm very grateful to my father for taking that risk." And how did he revive his passion for cooking?
"It all came back when I left school, and my father said you have to get a job. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. My father reminded me that I liked cooking and he made me go and knock on a restaurant door and ask for a job. And as soon as that knife got back in my hand and I started cooking again, it all came back. That was 40 years ago! So it's been a long journey and the great thing is that not one day is the same. I did exactly the same food that I did today in Colombo four days ago and the whole experience was different. I went to the Dubai Culinary Institute, an amazing facility and all these kids from all over the world were there, and everyone wanted to talk and so every day is different, every ingredient is different, every country is different. It's forever inspiring and exciting."
'Don't eat fake meat'
He talks about some of the more unusual foods he's indulged in and why animals deserve a good life.
"I've eaten grasshoppers, crickets, iguanas, I've eaten most things, some were good, some weren't - snakes were kind of bony! I've pretty much put most things in my mouth and that to me is an experience, but the older I get and the more educated I get at the way these things come to be dead, I'm  more selective. To me, animals who go to the slaughter should only have one bad day in their lives - that's the day they get killed. The rest of the time they should live happily, be fed well and looked after. Chickens live the shortest and in battery conditions don't live very well but there's farmers in Australia who have caravans and they call it nomadic chickens; so they build these caravans and some of the chickens are laying two eggs a day because they're so happy. And they tow the caravans to different parts of their property. And so the chickens come out, they fertilise the ground, they peck the ground. They're happy the meal is great, the eggs are wonderful. Then the cows come through and they tread that fertiliser into the ground. And behind them come the sheep who nibble away and that is an amazing way of permaculture, of keeping the soil rich, keeping the animals happy. or you can be vegetarian, that's good too."
But he has a piece of advice for vegetarians who are 'fake' meat eaters. "There's a lot of places and a lot of people that are vegetarian and the only thing I don't agree with is pretending you're eating meat! Don't eat fake meat, just eat soya beans! Don't eat soya meat! There's no such thing.(laughs)"
A chef's call for world peace
Peter believes that food is not only a conversational icebreaker but also a tool to promote harmony. "All you have to ask is 'what did your grandmother cook'. It will open up doors, everyone becomes friends. Food is a universal pacifier. You want peace in the world, you just have to ask these guys leading the world 'tell me what your grandmother cooked'. Just put ten of them in a room and say 'talk about your grandmother'! And they'd all stop being angry with each other and enjoy it. Food is more than just sustenance."
We asked Peter about the menu or the dish that he's most proud of having created and he tells us the story behind his famous Sri Lankan Snapper Curry.
"It was 2004 when we opened a restaurant called Flying Fish in Sydney on the harbour. Across the water was a restaurant called the Boat House, famous for this snapper pie - and I love it, I still make it. Stunning! But I thought, how are we going to knock this snapper pie off its perch? So the Sri Lankan Snapper Curry was born. What I basically did was made the sauce that my grandmother always made with the bones of the fish rather than the meat. You've got beautiful fish in Australia, so I separated the fish, cooked it simply, put it on the side. Then you've got your tamarind chutney, raita, coconut sambol - staples. And then I made a pan roll - it's a pancake with sweet potato and prawn, spiced and then crumbed. And when it gets to the table the waiter comes over and says, what we would like you to do is take the sauce, pour it over the fish (because it looks beautiful, the idea of modern is to make it look beautiful) and then try and get a little bit of everything into your mouth, and you'll be sitting in Peter's grandmother's 360-year-old house in Sri Lanka!"
Peter says cooking in his ancestral country of Sri Lanka means more than just filling your belly. "You never cooked just to eat. You cooked to make food good, you cooked for health. A classic in Sri Lanka is that every household has their own flavours. Even though the ingredients are the same, somehow it's a little bit different and you'll go to a house and have a big meal and everyone will say 'thank you very much' - Sri Lankan goodbyes take about an hour (laughs); you say goodbye at the table, you say goodbye in the front room, then you shake hands at the front door, then you come out and then just before you drive out you say goodbye again - it goes on forever. Anyway when it finally happens, as you drive off or walk away somebody in your party will go 'it was really good, but not as good as home' - that's the final comment (laughs). Cooking for Sri Lankans is the hardest thing for me, but that shows the passion! It's about culture, passion, history, everything. And that stuck with me."
Peter finds the culinary scene in Dubai impressive. "It's diverse! Probably as diverse as all the airlines that come from this country. If you look at the flight crew, that's probably a good way to look at how diverse this country is and how diverse the culinary scene is. You can travel to ten different countries in a day in a culinary sense. And most importantly, I think when the best chefs in the world decide to set up restaurants here you know that they realise that there's value in being here. And that is a great accolade to Dubai and to the Middle East."

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